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A Half a Mind to Succeed (2012 Fall Commencement Address, Friday)

  • Date: 12/14/2012
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • This weekend we will confer more than 15-hundred degrees. On the vast majority of them, the name of the degree being received will include either the word, “arts” or the word “science.” As in “an associate of science” or a “master of arts.” Indeed, the largest college in our university is the Buchtel College of Arts and Sciences.

    So I would like to ask you a question about the phrase, “arts and sciences.”

    Which word of those three is the most important?

    Depending on your field of study, you are probably leaning strongly toward the first or the third.

    If you chose the middle one, however, you are correct.

    That small, single-syllable conjunction is the keystone to a successful career. Arts and Sciences. It represents equilibrium, balance…completion. But too often, in our personal careers, in business and even in government policy, we substitute for that vital syllable an even smaller one, a tiny manacle that binds our potential and constrains our futures.

    It is the word, “or,” as in, “Arts or sciences.”

    This is not a new phenomenon. Just over 50 years ago, C.P. Snow delivered a provocative lecture at Cambridge University titled, “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.”[i] Generations of scholars the world over have found that lecture to be an admirable rope for an unending game of tug of war.

    Snow made the case that “the intellectual life of the whole of Western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups.”[ii] Scientists and engineers comprise one side, while writers, artists, historians, philosophers and others in the arts and humanities make up the other. The two sides have been tugging away ever since.

    The match is inherently uneven, for as Snow said, “scientists have the future in their bones, (and) the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist.”[iii] And with the exception of a few major industries, such as motion pictures, music, publishing and television, the majority of business tends to add its considerable heft on the side of the scientists.

    About 10 years after Snow made public this tug of war, two psychologists, Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga, provided sand for both sides to dig in. They studied a last-ditch effort by brain surgeons to treat patients profoundly disabled by epilepsy.  The surgeons had operated on these individuals and severed their corpus callosum, the thick tissue that joined the two hemispheres of their brains.[iv]

    Sperry and Gazzaniga analyzed those patients and discovered that the two halves of the brain not only seemed to act independently, but they seemed to focus on different processes. Thus was born the enduring, grand myth of left-brain or right-brain people.

    I am sure you all have heard it. The left-brain controls logic and analysis, and supports reading, speech, math and reasoning. The right brain is oriented toward feelings and emotion, spatial perception and the arts, and imparts creativity to our actions.[v]

    This theory, which appeared to be firmly grounded in neuroscience, became extremely popular and is still referenced for some aspects of education policy and methodology. But not long after Sperry and Gazzaniga published their findings, subsequent research revealed that, while the two hemispheres of the brain do perform different tasks, they also share many others.[vi] In fact, cognitive scientist and psychology professor Daniel Willingham recently reported that, in a brain-imaging study he conducted, a simple function like “learning a sequence” involves five areas in the left hemisphere, five in the right, and four areas that corresponded to both.

    That is how a healthy brain works.

    That is how a healthy career works.

    And that is how a healthy economy works.

    In a recent speech at Oxford University, Michael Malone told the story of a visit to his professional writing class by Santosh Jayaram, a Silicon Valley high-tech entrepreneur. Malone invited Jayaram to speak to his class, but implored him “not to crush the kids’ hopes any more than they already are.” His friend replied, “Are you kidding? English majors are exactly the kind of people I’m looking for.”[vii]

    It seems that in the hypercompetitive world of software and hardware development, even before products are invented, entrepreneurs must stir up interest and enthusiasm for them. How do you do create interest in something that doesn’t even exist? With storytellers, artists and musicians.

    Steve Jobs said his parents were dismayed to learn that he had enrolled in a course on calligraphy in college. But years later, the beauty and artistry he discovered in that course found its way into the many fonts he chose for the first MacIntosh computer.[viii]

    The idea that “arts and sciences” has far more potential than “arts or sciences” is not new, nor is it specific to Silicon Valley. Long before many of you were born, an artist and writer built a dynasty that integrated arts with science, engineering and business. Perhaps you’ve heard of him: Walt Disney?

    You needn’t look very far for other examples. One of the most celebrated researchers on this campus is Dr. Joseph Kennedy. He is a distinguished professor of polymer science, and the holder of more than 100 U.S. patents. He also happens to be an avid drummer, who has applied his talents to concert orchestras as well as to swing bands.

    And in just a few moments, we will recognize Rob Briggs, a man who blended analytical and fiscal acumen with a love of the arts and philosophy to become one of Northeast Ohio’s most notable community leaders. 

    Regardless as to what words you find on your degree, you will best compete and thrive in this knowledge-based economy if you utilize the arts and sciences to tap into every asset of your brain.

    After all, no one rises to the top with only half a mind to succeed.


    [ii] Ibid, p. 10

    [iii] Ibid, p. 12

    [iv] Jarrett, Christian. (June 27, 2012)“Why the Left-Brain Right-Brain Myth Will Probably Never Die.” Psychology Today. http://io9.com/5923595/why-the-left+brain-right+brain-myth-will-probably-never-die

    [v] Strauss, Valerie. (Sept. 20, 2012) “Willingham: Left/right brain theory is bunk.” The Answer Sheet. Washingtonpost.com http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/daniel-willingham/willingham-the-leftright-brain.html

    [vi] Jarrett, Christian. Ibid.

    [vii] Malone, Michael S. (Oct. 24, 2012)“How to Avoid a Bonfire of the Humanities.” Oct. 24, 2012. Wall Street Journal

    [viii] Jobs, Steve, Commencement Address delivered at Stanford University, June 12, 2005

  • Topic Category: arts and sciences
  • Tags: Arts & Sciences left brain right brain C.P. Snow Robert Briggs
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